Skeleton of soldier unearthed at Waterloo identified

The skeletal remains of a soldier unearthed at the Waterloo battlefield in June of 2012 has been identified. He was 23-year-old Friedrich Brandt, a private in the 2nd line battalion of the King’s German Legion, felled by a French musket shot to the chest during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815. Although the identification cannot be confirmed with DNA analysis because no descendants are known, the circumstantial evidence makes a strong case.

Like a certain other historical figure whose remains were discovered in 2012, Brandt’s skeleton was found underneath a parking lot (an overspill lot for the battlefield visitor’s center). His skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers clearing the area for the planned reconstruction of the visitor’s center, but as soon as the crew realized they’d unearthed human remains they alerted the Ministry of Archaeology for the region of Walloon Brabant and archaeologists excavated the rest of the skeleton which was virtually intact, missing only a foot and some hand bones. They found the deceased also had something else in common with the other personage found under a parking lot: a spinal curvature that would have rendered him unfit for battle by modern standards. He was slight at just 5’1″ tall.

The young man had been hastily buried under 15 inches of soil, probably by his comrades who carried his moribund or dead body 109 yards behind the British front line in the shadow of what is today Lion Mount — a monument built in 1820 on the site where the Prince of Orange was wounded constructed out of 390,000 cubic yards of earth removed from the battlefield — but which in 1815 was the escarpment at the center of Wellington’s line. Victor Hugo describes the altered terrain poetically in Volume 2, Chapter 7 of Les Misérables:

Where the great pyramid of earth, surmounted by the lion, rises to-day, there was a hillock which descended in an easy slope towards the Nivelles road, but which was almost an escarpment on the side of the highway to Genappe. The elevation of this escarpment can still be measured by the height of the two knolls of the two great sepulchres which enclose the road from Genappe to Brussels: one, the English tomb, is on the left; the other, the German tomb, is on the right. There is no French tomb. The whole of that plain is a sepulchre for France.

Found with the soldier’s remains were 20 coins, an iron spoon, an unidentified wooden object with the initials “CB” and the date 1792 carved into it, the remains of the leather epaulets from his uniform, a flint and a small red sphere that nobody seems interested in explaining but we were all pretty curious about when it was discovered three years ago. The coins were corroded and only a half franc from 1811 could immediately be identified. Once cleaned, the coins were found to be German and French amounting to a month’s wages for a private in the King’s German Legion.

Researchers were hoping the epaulets might help identify which regiment the soldier had belonged to, but alas that came to naught. The only additional piece of evidence they were able to find was on the wooden object with the initials. Additional tests performed this February revealed that there was another initial before the CB, an F.

The discovery of the first initial was the breakthrough Gareth Glover, military historian, former Royal Navy officer and treasurer of the Waterloo Association, needed. KGL troops been positioned close to the area where the remains were found. When he checked the KGL muster rolls, he found only three soldiers with the initial FB. One had survived the battle. One died in the hospital in August of 1815. One was Friedrich Brand.

The King’s German Legion was formed after Napoleon conquered Hanover in 1803 and disbanded its army. King George III of England was also Prince-Elector of Hanover, so when his soldiers fled the French occupation, he welcomed them in England. KGL infantry, when they weren’t fighting the French mainly in Spain and Portugal, were quartered in barracks at Bexhill-on-Sea from 1804 until Napoleon’s first abdication in April 1814. Bexhill was a small village of about 100 houses with a population of 2,000. The arrival of 5,000-6,000 troops was initially jarring to the locals who compared them to Cossacks, but they soon settled in and became valued members of the community.

In August of 1814 the 5,000 KGL troops in Bexhill were ordered to return to the continent, much to the dismay of the Bexhillians who had come to love their German friends who sang so beautifully at St. Peter’s church, spent their wages so generously in the shops and hostelries and married their daughters. When Napoleon returned from exile on Elba and took his final stand at Waterloo, the KGL played a key role in the Allied victory, valiantly defending the farm of La Haye Sante 200 yards in front of the center of the
Allied line from late morning until they ran out of ammunition around 6:00 PM. Out of 360 KGL troops holding La Haye Sante, only 39 survived the French onslaught.

The rest of the King’s German Legion fought on Wellington’s right flank between Merbe Braine and Hougoumont farm. Private Brandt was part of this group. Glover believes he was slain in the early afternoon between 1:00 and 4:00 PM before his battalion advanced on Hougoumont.

Mr Glover said: “No-one can be 100% sure that the skeleton is Friedrich Brandt but with the information we have, this candidate is by far the most likely.”

It’s amazing they got anywhere near so educated a guess. Brandt’s is the only complete skeleton recovered from the Waterloo battlefield in two centuries. Close to 50,000 people died in that battle, but the Allied victors claimed their dead and buried them in consecrated ground while the French were burned or buried in mass graves. The graves were picked clean in the 1830s and 40s, the bones ground up to make valuable fertilizer for farmers and the teeth harvested for dentures that became known by the macabre moniker of “Waterloo teeth.”

To commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo this summer, Belgium is planning a number of special events and exhibitions. The skeleton will be part of an exhibition that opens in May at the Waterloo Battlefield museum, after which I hope he is buried with all due honors.

27 thoughts on “Skeleton of soldier unearthed at Waterloo identified

  1. When we had walked the field at Waterloo we went off for a coffee. Into the cafeteria burst an amiable bunch of French Hussars in full fig.

    Waterloo is a counterexample to the lazy “History is written by the victors”.

    1. I bet if you went back this year you’d see more people in French Hussar (and every other regiment that fought at Waterloo) gear than ever. Full fig as far as the eye can see. 😉

  2. When I started to read this post, I thought this would be another example of modern technology aiding history. But it isn’t. This is old-school finding by accident and guessing based on thorough research.
    How did they identify which regiment the soldier belonged to, if not by the epaulettes?

    And it’s funny to me (being Dutch) to be reminded that the young Prince of Orange (Prince of Orange had always been the main title held by this family but his father claimed the title of King of the Netherlands shortly before the Battle of Waterloo, which made the son prince of Orange) was actually counted among the heroes of Waterloo. It’s not a bit of history you hear a lot about here.

    1. It was the batallion records that ultimately pinpointed his regiment. Once they had the initials to compare to muster and fatality rolls, they were able to narrow down his identity. His regiment was listed alongside his name in the rolls.

  3. Georgette Heyer, queen of Regency romances, wrote a book set at the battle of Waterloo, An Infamous Army. Her account of the battle was so well researched and so clearly delineated that the reader feels as if he or she is standing on the sidelines. The book was even used, I’ve read, at Sandhurst military academy in classes teaching about the battle of Waterloo. Having read that story more than once, I find the discovery of this young soldier’s remains very poignant. The battle happened so suddenly and unexpectedly that many of the Duke’s staff were at a ball and actually went to the battle in full ball attire. This young man obviously still had in his pocket his latest month’s wages, suggesting he may not have had time to plan his approach to the battle either. I’m with you in hoping that he will be given a funeral and burial that offer him the dignity and final resting place he was denied the first time around.

    1. I haven’t read that book, but I will now. It takes special skill, I think, to make battle descriptions compelling to people who don’t find troop movements inherently fascinating. The human element is key. Thank you! :thanks:

  4. Fascinating! However he is described as being ‘virtually intact’ which I find surprising as the report states that his skull was destroyed by mechanical diggers and he was missing a foot and some hand bones. So with no head, only one foot and an incomplete hand is this really regarded by archaeologists as ‘virtually intact?’

    1. Although the head, feet and hands do have a large number of bones in them which makes the remaining skeleton seem sparse by percentage, I think the survival of almost the entire body qualifies it as close to intact. I suspect it’s also related to the fact that it was found articulated as buried with the fatal musket ball still in place.

  5. Does anyone beside myself find the fact that the dead soldiers graves were “picked clean” for the bones and teeth. These poor soldiers were buried in mass graves that were desecrated a mere 15 years later. Even less believable is the matter of fact reporting of this having taken place by the author of this article. Am I missing something here.

    1. The looting and abuse of corpses after the Battle of Waterloo is widely known. Victor Hugo wrote a whole chapter about it. Nor was the macabre practice of using the bones and teeth of battlefield dead done in secret. It took a concerted campaign in the press in the mid-19th century to get the fertilizer companies to stop using humans as raw material. I didn’t really think I was “reporting” it at all, matter of factly or not, just explaining the wider context of why the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton is so remarkable from a historical perspective.

  6. A small red sphere? A marble? Any info on the other remains unearthed? I must assume that as written I should already know this information a link to this might be useful.

  7. Thank you for your instantaneous response. I apologize for the comment in poor taste. I can’t give praise enough for this blog you create. The information is extremely well researched. I am a huge fan. This article for some unexplainable reason leaves me frustrated. Again I apologize.

    1. There’s no need to apologize. I appreciate that you have a visceral, emotional reaction to the abuse of human remains. I think it’s very decent of you, truly.

  8. Jame Alexander Thom’s historical novel of the Clark families adventures during the western expansion of the American colonies and in particular Virginia has some of the very best battle field descriptions I have read. As well as descriptions of how planning prior to the actual engagement is key to its outcome. Remember that after the invention of the rifle nearly every battle fought was won by the army with the most soldiers as long as their amunition was plentiful. Not so true during the various battles fought between the Blue Coats and the Red Coats. A must read for anyone interested in why battlefield engagement evolved so drastically over such a short time span.

    1. Very interesting. What period do Thom’s Clark novels cover? Expansion of the colonies suggests Indian wars, Seven Year’s War and/or the Revolutionary War. I’m fascinated by the history of weaponry (especially artillery), although I know very little about it. These books sound very much up my alley.

  9. Thank you for the link somehow I missed that report. Though there is still no mention of the other remains unearthed in 2012 from under the asphault parking lot. “Like a certain other historical figure whose remains were…”. Please help me here too.

    1. Ah, that would be King Richard III of England. I thought the parking lot reference would bring him to mind because of all the press about the “king under the car park.”

  10. Excuse my ignorance on this subject I am now curious with the 200th anniversary of the battle a few weeks from now are there annual reenactments staged. Simular to the annual reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg. Every last detail is just as it took place origionally. With some actors becoming taking an obsessive compulsive direction in their lives where they are consumed by the character they are portraying.

  11. This particular historical novel takes us the reader from the 1750’s with the history of General George Roger Clark thru to the Corp of Discovery led by Lt. William Rogers Clark and Captain Meriwether Lewis in 1804-06. Centering around the Family of John Clark and Anne Rogers Clark and their children. Most notably George and William. The textbook history of the earliest days of the American revolution is full of nothing short of deceptive attempts to unjustly give credit to a few that the true heroes remain forgotten. George Rogers Clark and approximately 100 volunteers were responsible for the expansion of the 13 colonies to the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. George spent his entire estate which was enormous to finance the entire advance and the occupation also the years of forming alliance with nearly every Native tribe all in the name of the newly formed Continental Congress. The really odd and virtually unknown fact of this matter is that he was never reimbursed a single penny and died owning a small bit of land and his home. Whereas his youngest sibling is known by nearly every living person in North America for his role in the expansion of the United States of America to its expansion to the Pacific Ocean. Hence “From Sea to Shining Sea” by James Alexander Thom I must not forget to mention the help that Sacajawea a Native America girl was to William at a most difficult point of their journey. The journals written by both Clark and Lewis along with several of the members of their expedition are truly fascinating to read reality more surreal than any fiction I personally have ever read. I don’t believe that their journals have been published in their entirety, excerpts only as far as I know. Thom’s version is not a textbook though in my opinion more accurate than anything the average youth would read in class in the public school’s today.

  12. FYI there is much ado written by Thom regarding the Artillary used by both the American’s and British armies one battle in particular as described by Thom of the British artillary leaves you with the feeling almost as if you were actually there as it unfolds. Another battle where the American Artillary sinks a British Battleship blocking the remaing armada’s entrance into I believe the Charelston Harbor and saving countless lives of civilians and thousands of the fledgling American army long before General Washington and the siege of the Potomac granted a major turning point in the 30 plus years of the American revolution. The surrender of Detroit without a single gunshot marked the end of the British claim to any lands now the United States of America. You won’t be dissapointed with the three books that Thom has written as one story told as a family history.

  13. Excuse my spelling (typing) in my haste to say (write) what is on my mind I rarely proof read my posts. :blush: :facepalm:

  14. One more bit of American History that virtually nobody knows. The trip taken by thousands from St. Louis Missouri to the Pacific by average citizens via the “Covered Wagons” to the Oregon territory. Along the Oregon Trail. So many wagons followed this route one after another mind you not as it sounds but in groups of 2 or 3 to as many as a couple dozen wagon loads traveling together. They left ruts in the earth that are easily found even today. The little know part being that these wagons were 6 to seven feet off of the ground. The actual floorboards of the wagons. The wood spoke wheels were 7 to 8 feet tall. There were always family members who had to walk along side of or behind the wagons. Some who walked nearly the entire route no less than 1500 miles. I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time by shear luck when a family taking a trip of a lifetime via covered wagon more or less following the same route traveled by those hearty pioneer’s passed by my car sales lot. In a flash I ran out to the road and tried unsuccessfully to walk along beside the person holding the reins of the two horse team pulling the wagon. To my dismay I couldn’t keep up and carry on a coversation with the driver for more than a couple of hundred yards at the time I was around 35 years old and in excellent physical condition. At least I thought I was my whole concept of the wagon ride west took on a totally changed perspective. From the size of the wagons the sheer mass of them to the speed that they were able to travel. On average it took 6 months to travel the 1600 miles distance. Obviously very few of those miles were covered at the pace set that day. I guesstimate that the wagon I tried to keep up with was making progress of nearly 5 miles per hour. Considering that a leisurely walking speed is between 2 and 3 mph. Consider this topic as another adventure into the early his of the European colonialization of North America. Title soon to be changed to the American pioneers conquest of the wild west where danger lurks with every step taken.

  15. Agreed that the trail west offered many dangers, including disease, weather, drowning during attempted river fordings, and occasional attacks by native Americans. Yet as a descendant of Mormon pioneers who came west from the 1840s to 1860s, I know that most of the Mormon wagons were pulled by oxen rather than horses. These beasts were slower, but they were also stronger for families trying to move households west in a wagon. My great great grandfather, Amos R. Wright, is related to have walked the entire distance at the age of 12, never riding in a wagon. He grew up to speak the Shoshone language by playing with Indian boys in the Salt Lake valley, and later rode for the Pony Express.

  16. To get back to the topic, since the Anglo-Dutch army left the pursuit of Napoleon’s routed army up to the Germans, it is not surprising that there was time for the Allies to burry their dead, What is surprising about this find is that his comrades, or the local farmers who might have done the work, left anything of value on the body, especially money. There are all sort of reports of the dead being looted the night following the battle, including the murder of wounded to facilitate the robbery.

    It would be interesting to know if this young soldier had any close relatives in his battalion, which might explain why the body was not put into a common grave and not looted.

  17. The article seems to suggest the time of death being around 1 pm, with the body being hastily buried. That’s in the middle of the battle, which went on for at least another seven hours into the long Summer evening.

    I’m guessing that his comrades quickly buried him in one of the lulls of the battle before returning to action. hence the reason that he still has his money and effects. Waterloo, like many battles, pulsed with periods of action interspersed with moments of relative calm.
    If his chums had buried him in the evening after the battle was over, and while the Prussians were off chasing the retreating French, then without doubt his pockets would have been emptied.

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